Climate Action Must Go Deeper Than ‘Carbon Neutral’
Last year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report sounded a global alarm about the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reach "net zero" levels by 2050. While there have been stark climate warnings for decades, this time the reaction was different. There is an unprecedented global surge of inspired climate activism, and across the country governors and state legislatures are taking up emissions reduction plans. Even some top-tier Democratic presidential candidates are pushing climate policies that would have been mostly unthinkable just a few months ago.
Unfortunately, not every climate plan can be called good news. When you pull back the curtain, you are likely to find policies that encourage the use of dirty energy, enrich powerful corporate interests, or utilize offsets and other accounting tricks to give the appearance of emissions cuts. Most importantly, most of these policies will not go far enough or fast enough to stave off the most dangerous levels of warming.
The first problem comes with determining what exactly counts as "carbon neutral" or "carbon free." In September of last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order laying out the goal of carbon neutrality by 2045. This announcement came just after he signed SB 100, a law committing the state to 100 percent renewable and zero-carbon resources by 2045. But neither define what might count as "zero carbon," which leaves the door open to nuclear power, fracked gas with so-called "carbon capture," and factory farm biogas to crowd out clean renewable energy from the sun and wind.
Washington state is following California's lead: Gov. Jay Inslee just signed a law that sets a goal of 100 percent greenhouse gas neutral electricity by the year 2030, and carbon-free by the year 2045. It has been lauded as the strongest climate policy in the country, but there are still areas of concern. While the new law does a better job of defining carbon emissions than others, its definition of renewables includes "biofuels," a category that could include things like burning wood and captured gases from factory farm waste — not exactly what comes to mind when you hear the words "clean energy." And the new law includes loopholes that allow power plants to comply with emission requirements by purchasing paper renewable 'credits' or through funding "compliance projects," rather than actually generating clean renewable energy through 2044.
Similar to Washington, New Mexico's new energy law — the Energy Transition Act — has been heralded as one of the strongest policies ever enacted, reaching 100 percent zero carbon electricity by 2045. But it has one huge problem: it doesn't stop dirty energy extraction. The state's oil and gas drilling boom will continue more or less as is, since those dirty fuels are exported across state lines, they are not factored into New Mexico's electricity mix.
But the problems go deeper than that — and raise questions about many carbon neutral schemes. Hedge fund investors are looking to buy up coal plants in the state to install carbon capture sequestration (CCS) technology, a costly, unproven, and extremely energy-intensive practice that can actually increase carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions. The CO2 generated at a coal plant could even be pumped back into wells to squeeze every last bit of oil out of the ground, through a process the industry calls "enhanced oil recovery." So, we would continue burning coal and extracting oil at a time when we should be getting off fossil fuels — and tragically, the state would call such an arrangement "carbon neutrality."
These carbon accounting tricks serve to delay the necessary transition to clean, renewable sources of energy — sometimes they do so quite explicitly. A carbon neutrality plan that could soon become law in Colorado not only promotes nuclear, carbon capture, and biofuels as possible clean energy solutions — it explicitly prevented the state from enforcing any bona fide renewable energy mandate.
All of these plans point to an inherent problem in crafting any "carbon neutral" policy. These arrangements encourage the use of "offsets" and other accounting techniques to cancel out fossil fuel emissions with short term carbon sequestration techniques, like planting trees. To be clear, there's nothing wrong with doing everything in our power to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere; but if we aren't making rapid reductions in fossil fuel-linked emissions, we won't be making true progress. Coming up with clever tricks that merely reduce carbon emissions on paper or a spreadsheet does not have the same effect as making the difficult but necessary choices to eliminate emissions at their source. Ideas like "carbon capture" have never been shown to work on any meaningful scale, but energy companies promote them as a 'carbon neutral' alternative to getting off fossil fuels. Climate advocates should not play along with this blatant greenwashing.
There are other ways lawmakers are gaming the transition to clean energy. A Pennsylvania legislator introduced a bill adding a new tier of zero emission sources within the state's renewable energy program. But it meets its new target mostly through nuclear power — essentially re-branding nukes as a form of renewable energy. The bill amounts to a huge ratepayer-funded bailout of a handful of profitable corporations, as has recently happened in New York, Illinois and New Jersey.
Even some of the boldest national climate plans have their own shortcomings. The Green New Deal, which has dramatically re-shaped the national discussion of climate policy, bases most of its climate goals on achieving net-zero emissions, while providing no substantive analysis of what energy sources would count towards such goals. And the resolution ignores the supply side issues altogether; stopping new pipelines, fossil fuel power plants and fracking wells must be an explicit part of any meaningful climate policy.
Renewable energy costs continue to decline, and at this point are even cheaper than maintaining existing fossil fuel infrastructure. So why would lawmakers embrace polices that will keep us hooked on fuels that are more expensive, create air and water pollution, and deepen the climate crisis? At best, well-meaning elected officials are simply unaware of the real impacts of these carbon neutral policies; at worst, policymakers are deliberately misleading the public into thinking they are backing clean energy while kowtowing to the powerful special interests destroying the planet.
Either way, real climate leaders must back policies that explicitly and immediately start phasing out fossil fuels, and replace these polluting energy sources with power from the wind and sun — without relying on carveouts or accounting gimmicks. These actions, alongside a significant investment in energy efficiency and upgrades to the power grid, will help stabilize the planet's climate, greatly improve public health, and protect our air and water.
Jim Walsh is the Renewable Energy Policy Analyst at the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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